Moving Beyond the Prevention of Violence

by Tina Phillips

If we had a non-hierarchical society, we would not have the social problems we face now. One major example of a social problem that impacts our society is violence. Violence has been linked to poverty, economic stratification, inequality, and disproportionate power. Those who live in hierarchical societies more often face violence. Why?

When someone doesn’t have something they need, they often use force to get it. In a world of poverty, people often use force to survive. Where there is abuse and trauma people often use each other to get their needs met. Stress and strife cause people to react negatively. When people are not taught positive coping skills and assertive and healthy ways to express their emotions, they tend to lash out in anger, frustration, and violence. Dehumanization creates more dehumanization. Those who are oppressed tend to oppress others. Deprivation leads to desperation. When a person lacks power, control, and agency in their own lives, they often look to take power, control and agency from others in one form or another. This is why poverty creates violence.

Poverty, Stress, and Violence

Oftentimes, people living in poverty face some of the harshest conditions, deprived of basic necessities. Poverty means you are under constant threat of not having food, clothing or shelter, and are always under pressure to secure resources for daily living. This leads to a lot of stress.

Stress can produce physical health impacts, mental illness, substance abuse issues and other addictions, as well as violence and abuse — including physical, mental/emotional/verbal, sexual, and intimate partner violence. These types of abuse are associated with the effects of trauma.

Poverty is also likely to be entrenched. The likelihood that an individual can overcome poverty is very low. Poverty is usually inter-generational — meaning if your parents were poor, you are more likely to be poor. The poor lack opportunities to get out of poverty.

Poverty is created by a system that thrives on poverty. The capitalist system is self-fulfilling: It exploits people who are desperate by locking them into low wage-jobs. Meanwhile, their labor makes very few people very wealthy. As a country, America is becoming increasingly poor as income inequality grows rapidly.

The fact is most people born into poverty will never overcome it. This is not because they do not work hard. Most poor folks work harder than most wealthy people, working several grueling manual labor jobs. These jobs are generally low-wage jobs. In fact, low-wage jobs are the only growth industry in the United States right now.

Poor people work very hard and that is part of why poor people are so stressed out — they have very little time to relax, decompress, and participate in self-care. When a parent is away from his or her child so much, or children are around a stressed-out parent, this causes stress on the child.

The rise in childhood mental illness has been positively correlated to poverty, stress and lack of parent contact. Children need close bonds with their parents so they can attune to them, develop healthy attachments, and mirror the parent’s modeling. Parents also need to closely supervise their children because children need lots of guidance. When this does not occur because parents are working to help their family survive, children are often vulnerable to developing increased levels of violence – gang violence, sexual assault, and sexual exploitation.

Moreover, families suffering from inequality stemming from being at the bottom of the hierarchy are sometimes striving for power and control in any way they can get it. This is a common psychological/sociological response that some people have when they’re trying to survive and get their needs met. One of the negative consequences of this is violence and abuse. Some people feel they don’t have other choices for making money to survive and use violence as a means to secure survival. People have to get their needs met one way or another and when they cannot get them met healthfully and pro-socially, they will get them met in unhealthy and maladaptive ways.

Forms of Violence

Violence comes in many forms. Oftentimes, violence manifests in the form of intimate partner violence, when two people in a relationship abuse each other. It also manifests when a parent hits a child, when a person rapes or molests another person, when a person commits armed robbery, when a person joins a criminal gang that deals drugs, or when militaries engage in armed conflict. Substance abuse and other addictions often arise as people try to find a way to cope with the psycho-social stressors in their lives. Substance abuse can often lead to increasing violence and danger in people’s lives. Moreover, addictions often lead to child neglect, which leaves a child vulnerable to further abuse.

Abuse does not exist in a vacuum. It exists due to multiple hierarchical systems that create it. The system of violence utilizes classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. to locate vulnerable targets. For instance, strict gender role construction and patriarchy exist so that a tight system of hierarchies can be maintained. Furthermore, just as hierarchies create violence, violence is also used to maintain hierarchies. It has a cyclical effect.

There are many examples of how violence reinforces and maintains hierarchies. For instance, guns help anyone from a gang member, police officer, or solider in the military maintain dominance, control, and power through force. Torture is often used by the military in times of war. Men use the power of their strength, larger frames, and their male privilege in our society to force their will on women and children in the family, workplace, and in social and political arenas. Many people, of all sexes and genders, use violence in intimate partner relationships or against their children to empower themselves through asserting control of and intimidation over others. People of color and LGBT people are often targeted in hate crimes just for being different than the mainstream. Many people, including children, use bullying and relational aggression to knock down others who they view as unpopular, weak, or non-conforming. In addition, rape is one of the most damaging ways that violence is used to degrade others  —  often inflicted upon those seen as “inferior.”

As much as hierarchies create violence, violence props up the hierarchies and reinforces them so they become entrenched. Those who resist hierarchies, transgress them, or try to escape violent situations, are often punished with severe consequences and retaliation, which keeps many afraid and locked in a perpetual cycle of hierarchical systems that utilize violence as a tool of submission.

Men control women, some men control other men, and men and women control children. Those with power control those who lack power and everyone is controlled by hierarchical systems that keep them shamed, alienated, exploited, oppressed, unequal, unconscious, and disempowered. This works out pretty well for capitalism, which is creating record profits for corporations through methods of control.

Sexual Abuse

One way violence manifests itself is in sexual abuse and assault. Statistics show that abuse is widespread: One in three girls and one in six boys has been sexually abused. Those figures are astronomical and demonstrate just how widespread and commonplace abuse is. The consequences of abuse last a lifetime.

The United Nations recently published a report on sexual assault. The report included interviews from 10,000 men in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka. It found that 1 in 4 men had raped someone and 1 in 10 had raped someone who was not their romantic partner (World Health Organization, 2013). A pattern has emerged where men who are raised with the cultural expectation of dominance and entitlement over women use rape as a tool of oppression. The researchers concluded that prevention was needed and that interventions should focus on “childhood and adolescence, and address culturally rooted male gender socialization and power relations, abuse in childhood, and poverty.” However, prevention alone will not eradicate sexual violence. As long as hierarchies exist, so will the human urge to seek power over others.

What About Men?

While women are more oppressed than men in our society (and often by men themselves), we should not forget that men are also oppressed. Men are told in our society that they cannot be “weak” and, thus, cannot show any emotion other than anger or violence. Men are constantly policed by each other in this regard; if they do show emotion they are shamed and told they are not men. In our society, it is less acceptable for men to behave differently from society’s imposed gender roles, which are reinforced by the binary social construction of gender. Those who do not conform are socially or physically punished.

Men who use a “one-up” mentality to display hypermasculinity in a game of domination demonstrate how hierarchical systems manifest and keep men locked in negative patterns. The process relies on shame and insecurity the same way that women’s oppression works — both of which help fuel capitalist control and power.

Generation FIVE

There is a social justice organization in the SF Bay Area called Generation FIVE. Their purpose is to end child sexual abuse in five generations. Sexual abuse is just one manifestation of the hierarchical system we operate under in America, and it has major consequences for our entire society.

Generation FIVE’s website states: “We are living in a broader social context that teaches power-over relations, private ownership (parents/family) of children, a dismissal of children’s accounts (legal), mixed messages and little education about human sexuality (it is bad, shame based, and it is used to sell us everything from cars to deodorant), and the ongoing mixing of sex and violence. We are not taught to address pain and trauma deeply, but rather mask symptoms or blame the individual for their distress. Child sexual abuse is about having power over another person and using that power sexually. The norms that allow for this behavior are sadly, ever-present in our society.”

Generation FIVE came up with its own theory of how to end sexual abuse by way of what they call “transformative justice.” Generation FIVE believes, “systems of oppression and child sexual abuse have an interdependent relationship: a power-over system that benefits some at the expense of others and uses violence, creates the conditions for child sexual abuse (i.e. gender inequality, class exploitation, racism, violence and threat for difference), while in turn the prevalence of child sexual abuse fosters behaviors (obedience to authority, silence, disempowerment, shame) that prevent people from organizing effectively to work for liberation, healing and change systemic forms of violence.”

Generation FIVE recognizes how deeply everyday systems are operating to produce sexual abuse. When people talk about “rape culture,” it reaches into the very fabric and foundation of our society and filters down into our culture. Generation FIVE also sees that that we must explore the root causes of sexual abuse in order to find transformative solutions.

The Capitalist System

The truth is the capitalist system itself perpetuates violence. Sadly, capitalism is supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. For example, Democrats and Republicans have helped to whittle away a woman’s right to abortion; they perpetuate wars; they passed welfare reform; they line the pockets of corporations and Wall Street; and they support the so-called War on Drugs, among many other measures that have contributed to poverty and violence. As long as Democrats and Republicans support the capitalist system, they are supporting hierarchies that will continue to subjugate people.

True liberation comes when we rid ourselves of hierarchies, whether in our families, between men and women, between gays and straights, between different races, between adults and children, between employees and employers, and between the people and our government. If we want to end these problems, we have to go after what conditions create them — to the root causes. That is why we have to end what fundamentally creates hierarchies — the capitalist system itself.

The Alternative

Right now, the wealthy elite benefit the most from the rest of us, but we have the ability to flip the script and create a society that serves us all. In an egalitarian society, violence will largely be a thing of the past.

Studies by neuro-biologist, Robert Sapolsky, at Stanford University prove that human beings are social animals who thrive on social interaction and connection. Salpolsky also has proven that stress greatly increases in a society rife with hierarchy and domination. Chronic stress is directly linked to chronic diseases, mental illness, and early death. Saolsky concludes if we lived in a non-hierarchical society, where there was peace among people who cooperated instead of competed, who supported each other instead of trying to dominate one another, and where everyone helped each other out to survive, we would all live longer happier lives.

Our quality of life is vastly diminished by the profit-based capitalist system that governs most all aspects of our lives. We need a human-needs based system where all get to share in the decision making, work together and reap benefits more equally. We need that system because it works best for us and will give us what we need, want, and deserve as human beings. It would unleash and expand not only our potential and ability to self-actualize and self-activate, but also our ultimate happiness as individuals and as a community.

The Socialist Party USA believes in the power of socialist feminism to provide a model for an egalitarian society. From the Statement of Principles of the Socialist Party USA: “Socialist feminism confronts the common root of sexism, racism and classism: the determination of a life of oppression or privilege based on accidents of birth or circumstances. Socialist feminism is an inclusive way of creating social change. We work against the exploitation and oppression of women who live with lower wages, inferior working conditions and subordination in the home, in society and in politics.”

The Statement of Principles also includes planks that address creating systems of freedom and equality, radical democracy, “the abolition of male supremacy and class society,” and “the elimination of all forms of oppression, including those based on race, national origin, age, sexual preferences, and disabling conditions.” Furthermore, the Statement of Principles calls for giving the means of production to all workers and allowing workers to democratically control their workplaces, eliminating capitalist exploitation.

Moreover, the Socialist Party USA’s platform addresses many policies that would fundamentally transform the structure of society to eliminate hierarchies and, thus, violence. The platform states the “ultimate goal of a society [should be] founded on principles of egalitarian, non-exploitative and non-violent relations among all people and between all peoples.” The platform calls for full employment for all, a living wage, a livable guaranteed annual income, and “increased and expanded welfare assistance and unemployment compensation at 100 percent of a worker’s previous income or the minimum wage, whichever is higher, for the full period of unemployment or re-training, whichever is longer,” and also addresses economic development and investment using government resources to help lift all out of poverty. It goes on to spell out capitalism’s link to racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism and addresses each oppressed group with demands for elimination of discrimination and exploitation based on inferior status. The platform also takes an explicit stance against patriarchy and male domination. Lastly, the platform demands access to affordable education, housing, transportation, and healthcare, and contains planks against the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs. These are the types of principles and measures that would work to eradicate poverty and violence.

The rich are few and the working class is many, giving us the power to transform our society so it benefits us all. If we worked together, we could make it happen. We need to end the system of power that seeks domination and instead choose to seek mutual and shared power among all people that creates healthy social, cultural, economic and political relationships. If we want to end violence in all its forms, we need much more than mere prevention — the future we need is socialist.


Tina Phillips is a social worker who lives in Oakland, California with her partner, Rachel. She has been a member of the SPUSA since 2000. She enjoys writing, cooking, thrift stores, and her four cats, and dog, Miss Piggy. Tina is a member of the Bay Area Local of the SPUSA.



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